If your life is like mine, you only have a limited amount of time to practice your golf game. So when you do, you want to maximize time rather than mindlessly beating range balls. Personally, as my golf career has progressed, I’ve figured out what works best for my golf game and what drills seem to give me the best output with my limited input.
In this article, I outline the drills that work for me. I’ve always placed drills into two categories, mechanical and game-improving. Mechanical drills are ones that help fix swing issues like over the top, casting, etc. Game-improving drills are ones that hone the necessary skills to shoot lower scores. In my experience, you need to perform both types of drills in order to truly improve your game.
For this article, I give you my top game-improving drills so you can make practice more fun and get better in the process. Look out for an article on my top mechanical drills in the near future.
1. Putting: High Break, Medium Break, Low Break
Being a successful putter means consistently marrying line and speed. But in order to do that, you need to be able to see the different lines that the ball can possibly take as it rolls across the green. There’s a “high” side and a “low” side to every putt, and if you can’t see the difference between those, you’re limiting your ability to read greens.
This drill helps develop that feel and imagination.
Pick a putt between 10-20 feet with some break in it, and practice finding the highest and lowest break points possible to still have the ball go in the hole. This will mean altering speeds in the process. Developing your imagination will help you better manage your line and speed on the greens.
2. Putting: Left Hand (Line), Right Hand (Feel)
Golfers often feel that one hand dominates their putting stroke, which is not a problem, but I like to train each hand individually to know its role during the stroke.
“Lead hand controls the line while the rear hand controls the loft of the blade,” Homer Kelley says in the classic golf instruction book, The Golfing Machine.
This drill, which you may have seen Tiger Woods perform in the past, has golfers hit putts of different lengths with just their right hand, and then just their left hand. You’ll want to notice how the face and loft of the blade changes during the strokes with each hand, which will give you a great feel for the role that each hand plays in the stroke.
Figure out which hand you feel more comfortable with when putting one-handed, and you’ll then know which hand you want to feel dominates the stroke when you’re putting with both hands.
3. Getting Back Your Short Game Feel
Back when I was a competitive player, there was nothing worse than losing my feel around the greens. I combatted this by looking for the longest grass around the practice green I could find, and practicing soft-landing flop shots to a tight pin. The longer grass made me accelerate through the ball and the precision required made me focus on hitting a perfect shot. And more times than not, I’d have my feel back after the session.
The next time you’re struggling with your feel, try hitting shots that require acceleration. It will free you up so you can get back to getting up and down.
4. Snake Drill (Bunkers)
The biggest issue most golfers have when playing bunker shots is their lack of low-point control; most can contact the sand before the ball, as needed, but they either take too much sand or not enough. If you’ve ever seen someone leave a ball in the bunker, then blade one over the green, you know what I’m talking about.
To solve this, I like to draw two lines in the bunker about six inches apart– I call them “snakes,” because that’s what they look like — and practice impacting the sand on the first line and have the club exit the sand at the second line. When I miss the “snakes,” I get to see exactly where I went wrong.
5. Line Drill (Wedges)
One of the most aggravating things in golf is to hit a great drive to 100 yards or less from the pin, then lay the sod over the ball on your approach and watch the ball fly only half-way there. As you know, hitting wedges solid is one of the keys to scoring well and one of the true great feels in golf. So whenever I have issues striking my wedges solidly, I use my “line drill.”
Draw a line in the turf and place the ball on the target side of the line. Then, hit a few shots and note where the divot begins. If you can consistently take a divot on the line or slightly forward of it, you’re on your way to more solid wedge shots.
6. Connection Drill (Wedges)
Consistent impact with wedge shots is crucial to ball striking, as we learned above. But how do we accomplish it from day to day? By using the big muscles to power the little muscles. A strong connection between the torso and the golf club will keep the body and club from getting disconnected. Whenever golfers use their hands excessively around the green, they’re destined for problems.
To combat this, place a towel under your armpits and hit short chip shots. The idea is to hit the ball solid and keep the towels from falling out, working everything back and through TOGETHER.
Another drill to feel this connection is to stick an alignment rod in the hole in your grip and make practice swings from waist high to waist high without getting slapped by the extra long club. If your hands become overactive, the stick will let you know.
7. Mid-Irons (Left-Straight-Right)
Anytime I see players hitting the ball very well OR very poorly, I ask them to use the left-straight-right drill with a mid-iron. That’s because when good golfers are hitting the ball well, they can make it curve however they want and go to the course with supreme confidence. On the flip side, if they’re hitting shots all over the lot, they’re usually better off identifying the trajectory they’re most confident in and sticking with it until their swings come back. That will help them score better.
For the drill, use a 6, 7 or 8 iron and practice hitting draws, fades and straight shots, alternating between each. Practice curving it a lot, then practice curving it a little. See how much control you can gain over the amount you curve the ball, or what shot is working best for you that day.
8. Mid-Iron (9 Panes of Glass Drill)
Imagine a big window in the sky with nine panes of glass; one pane for each possible shot you can hit. Low-left, high-right, straight-middle, and so on.
The best part of Bubba Watson’s game is the way he can make the ball move through any pane of glass with any club at any time. Golf is much more than just hitting a series of straight shots at the highest level, and shaping shots is key to converting good strikes into lower scores. The more shots you have in your arsenal the better you will play, regardless of your level of play.
Take as much time as you can to learn how to hit all nine shots with a mid-iron, and expand to the other clubs in your bag once you do. Start this winter and come spring, you’ll be glad you did.
9. Driver: Find the Fairway Any Way You Can
When you’re struggling with your driver, you need a go-to shot to find the fairway. It’s even more important to have a go-to shot when you’re under pressure, whether you’re playing for your pride or your career.
For this drill, simply take time experimenting on the range with your driver. Try hitting huge banana balls, stingers and hooks on command. Eventually, you’ll figure out what shot feels most reliable for you. Remember, this is more about accuracy than distance. You want to find the shot you can get in the fairway no matter what.
10. Driver: Impact Drill with Spray
The best way to audit your impact on the practice tee is to spray the face with Dr. Scholl’s Foot Spray to see where the ball contacts the face. Remember, you can do more to gain distance by improving impact location and consistency than adding club head speed.
One of the best recent golf studies I’ve seen was by James Leitz, who charted the changes in impact point with a driver and what it did to the ball speed, spin rate, and launch angle. Basically, the study showed that golfers must contact their drives in the high center of the club face to create the launch conditions that maximize distance off the tee.
How “long arms” at the top of the backswing can help you hit the ball farther
One of the hardest things to do as we get older is to make a big shoulder turn with extended arms at the top. It’s the swing of a younger golfer! However, every one of us can add width at the top so we can hit it further, but few know how to actually do so. In this article, I will use MySwing 3D Motion Analysis to help you understand how beneficial long arms are at the top.
As you examine the swing of this particular player, you will notice that the lead arm is “soft” and the hands are close to this player’s head at the top. This is the classic narrow armswing to the top that most older players employ. And as we all know this position leaves yardage in the bag!
Now let’s look at the data so we can see what is actually happening…
At the top you can see that the shoulders have turned 100 degrees which is more than enough, but the arms look jammed and narrow at the top. Why?
The answer lies within the actions of the rear arm, the lead arm is only REACTING to the over-bending of the rear elbow. As you can see at the top the rear elbow is bent 60 degrees. In a perfect world, when the rear elbow is at 90 degrees (a right angle) or more, the lead arm will be mostly straight — depending on how you’re built.
Something to note…in this position the hands are just past the chest and the shoulders have turned almost 90 degrees. However, when this player finished his backswing, he added 30 more degrees of rear elbow bend and only 11 more degrees of shoulder turn! What this means is that for the last quarter of the backswing, all this player did is allow the hands to basically collapse to the top of the backswing. This move is less than efficient and will cause major issues in your downswing sequencing, as well as, your transitional action.
As stated when your trail elbow stays at 90 degrees or wider in route to the top, you will have a much straighter lead arm.
One last thing to note when comparing these two players is that this player two had a shorter backswing length but a BIGGER shoulder turn with WIDER arms at the top, giving this player a short compact motion that resembles Adam Scott — which seems to work for he and Butch!
Therefore, the thing to remember is that if your lead arm is soft at the top and your arms look crowded at the top, then you must fix the over-bending of the rear elbow on the backswing. And if you have wider arms you will have a more solid “package” to become a ballstriking machine!
Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter
Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.
The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.
In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.
And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.
Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.
As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.
Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.
Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.
This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.
So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.
- Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
- Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
- Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
- Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
- Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.
While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.
When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.
And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,
“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”
Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.
WATCH: How slow-motion training can lead to more power and consistency
Eddie Fernandes has made big changes to his swing (and his power and consistency have gone up) by mastering the key moves in slow motion before he speeds them up. Everyone should use this kind of slow motion training to make real changes to their swing!
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